Saturday, November 25, 2006

Genre Speculation

The latest issue of Locus magazine has an interview with China Mieville, part of which I now quote:
I got very frustrated when the whole debate about New Weird was
going on. If it doesn't work, if it's a stupid category--fine, let's
talk about that. But people often say any act of pigeonholing is bad. That is
absurd, for we do it all the time. It's not like labeling in geology,
saying 'This is this type of rock' and that's the end of the story; it's a tool,
and you use it as long as it's useful.

I started a "book group" about five years ago, a bunch of friends gathering to discuss speculative fiction. Every four to six weeks we gather to discuss the latest selection (we're reading Brave New World right now). When we first started gathering, I thought we should read a book from each of the major subgenres--science fiction, fantasy, and horror--so that we could talk about what makes them what they are. The science fiction book we started with was Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, and we immediately lost a member, because to his mind, the book was not remotely science fiction. For him, the book was lacking aliens and spaceships and ray guns, and therefore could not be considered science fiction. (I remember asking him how he would classify the novel, but I honestly can't remember his response.)

To some extent, it was this populist definition of science fiction that led me to start the book group and begin trying to build arguments for and against my own theory of the definition of science fiction. Over the intervening years, we have read fascinating works and talked about them, even going so far as to try to place them in genres and subgenres, and perhaps even subsubgenres (scientific romance, anyone?). But whenever the genre question arises, the conversation suddenly goes from cordial and friendly to sharp and formal. I really despise when that happens, but fortunately, we have all been friends for years, even decades, so we work our way past it. And I try very hard to indicate that it doesn't matter what definitions people use, so long as they work for the user.

But it's a funny thing about genres. As difficult as it is to work with literature and the way works sometimes get stuck in the spaces between them, think about music. I used to taunt a good friend who is a classical music fan by challenging him to define "classical music". Think about it for a while--I'm not sure it can be done. I'm a huge prog rock fan, and my wife sometimes says she hates prog rock, and yet we both like Rush. I spent an entertaining tailgating afternoon discussing with another friend "What is Southern rock?". And although I've never been able to reach consensus with anyone about the definitions I'm seeking, every person I talk to holds on to their definitions tightly, not appreciating even the friendly challenges that come from asking what someone's thoughts are.

Part of why I am writing this blog is to talk about the latest things I have read, and part of that discussion will have to include the genre I place it in. But it's a tool; it's my shorthand way of pigeonholing something easily for discussion. I don't ask that you, my hypothetical reader, agree with my definitions of the genres and subgenres, but accept them as the filing device I intend them as. And, to be honest, I will happily engage anyone with a friendly conversation about the genres, all the while trying to hold my proselytizing zeal to a minimum. My own tools will be discarded and modifed as needed, bearing in mind that thus far the tools I have I made for myself.

And if you have a real good definition of Southern rock, let me know.


  1. Remember that movie from around 1995 called Strange Days? So, would that be science fiction even though there are no ray guns or space ships?

  2. The one with Ralph Fiennes? I can't recall the details of it--I know that I liked it very much and it certainly has a technological setting. My first inclination, as I try to remember the hazy details of the story, is that it is SF because it is about how a culture and an individual deal with the VR chips. I need to see it again, and fortunately IMDB says it is coming to TV soon.